Martin Luther’s Table Talk on the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper

A good bit of seminary work is reading the classics from Calvin and Luther going back all the way to Augustine. There is a good reason, they have a huge amount of collective knowledge we can all still learn from today and apply to our own ministry. Table Talk is the classic text written by Martin Luther that launches into “a relentless attack on the ethics and consciences” of Christian religious practices (the Church of Rome or the Catholic Church as we know it today).[1] The text is broken up into 45 “Of” treatise with a final conclusion on the Treatise on Indulgences.

Luther’s language, and the translation from German to English, still retains the form of his day, making it a little harder to understand in the 21st century, but the points are still clear.  His arguments are more or less similar to the differences between the Catholic faith and Protestants that still exist today.

Starting in chapter CCCLVI and going through chapter CCCLXV, Luther takes a look at number fourteen on his list, “Of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper,” which deals with how the Roman Church was using the Lord’s Supper sacrament in the late 15th and early 16th century, but recognizes its ordination at the council of Constance as well.[2]  Three points to take away from this section are (1) the altering of the sacrament by raising it, (2) the substance of the bread and wine, and (3) the ex opera operato and the effectiveness of the sacrament.

As was fitting within the culture of his day, he held no punches when explaining his views on the subject.  “The ignorant wretches are not able to distinguish between the cup and fasting… one has God’s express word and command, the other consists in our will and choice.”[3]  Luther starts his argument with a lengthy explanation of how the papists have justified their actions in altering the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  He then proceeds through a step-by-step process of pointing out their errors, calling it an abominable idolatry by raising the “sacrament on high to show people.”[4] Luther says this practice should be “utterly rejected,” and he calls on churches to abolish this idolatrous practice, some of which did follow his recommendation.

The next point is one Luther does not spend much time discussing, although it becomes one of the biggest points of contention between the Roman Church and Protestants, and still is today. The argument, which argues the actual substance of the bread and the wine, and whether it does contain the actual flesh and blood of Christ himself, is still discussed today.  Luther in section CCCLXII almost alludes to this practice, but it is clear that he is referring to the substance of the sacrament, “which is spiritually received by faith… not doubting that Christ’s body and blood were given and shed for us.”[5]

The final point to look at within this section of Table Talk is the ex opera operato, which the Catholic Church said pertained to the efficacy of the sacrament.  This Latin phrase that means “from the work done” pertains to the work done by Christ, the sinful nature of those priests who give the sacrament, and whether the sacrament is effective or not depending on who is giving the sacrament.  Luther’s point was they “do not hold the sacrament as Christ instituted it,” therefore they don’t actually have the sacrament at all, and they are not justified because of ex opera operato.

[1] Martin Luther, Table Talk of Martin Luther, 1st, trans. William Hazlitt (Orlando, FL: Bridge-Logos, 2004), ix.
[2] Ibid, 225.
[3] Ibid, 225.
[4] Ibid, 227.
[5] Ibid, 228.

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